When my friends and fellow French Winophiles settled on “A French-Style Season” for December’s theme, my mind automatically wandered back to the fantastic holidays Dan and I have spent in Provence. From wandering through the old Papal palace in Avignon on Christmas Day (yes, it’s open!) to Christmas markets in Aix, Provence is a fantastic place to spend the holidays. France does the festive season very, very well. And they (of course!) eat and drink wonderfully over the season. Provence has a very special meal they do on Christmas Eve, so we recreated it at home so we could enjoy the memories. Sadly we don’t have any Christmas markets, but with a little creativity and a few bottles of good Provencal wine, we were able to conjure the sound of the mistral blowing against our shutters in Avignon or the sound of the surf and the feeling of the sand in Nice.
The traditional Christmas Eve menu in Provence is a very symbolic meal. The table is laid out with three white tablecloths which are overlapped so that you can see them and lit by three white candles. The tablecloths are meant to call to mind the Holy Trinity and the candles also represent the Trinity and light in the darkest time of the year. Although in French the meal is called le gros souper (the big dinner), it is actually a light dinner that is meatless. Fortunately, the treasures of the Mediterranean are not considered meat under Catholic rules for fast days. Traditionally, the meal has seven different dishes which are all placed on the table at the same time. There are no set dishes which must be served, so region and family tradition tend to dictate the menu. The number seven reminds the diners of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary. Common dishes include bouillabaisse or another fish stew, salt cod, braised celery and chard, quiche, hard boiled eggs, seafood salad and mixed greens with a light dressing. Most restaurant menus, especially around Marseilles, will feature
bouillabaisse since it’s a regional specialty. In Nice you’ll often see fish rillettes and anchovy-based dishes. Inland, cod tends to be king for the main dish and you’ll see more egg-based foods on the table. Almost every family has their own traditional dishes and if you’re at the market in Provence, the stall-keepers are usually more than happy to share their recipes and family traditions with you if you let them know you want to prepare a traditional gros souper.
The gros souper is also traditionally accompanied by seven different local wines, both for the symbolism and so that each dish has a perfect pair.
There is one more set of traditions for this meal. After the gros souper, the family would traditionally go to church for midnight mass. After the mass, the fast day would be broken by sharing the platter of les treize desserts de Noël with friends and family. Yes, there are 13 different types of dessert on the platter. And, in the same vein as the dinner, many of the desserts are also symbolic of aspects of French Catholic tradition.
The number 13 represents Jesus and his Apostles at the last supper. Commemorating the eventual crucifixion of the newborn baby brings the story of Jesus’s life and sacrifice full circle. It also reminds everyone that in joy there is also some sorrow. Although not all 13 desserts are fixed, many of the items on the plate are required for it to be traditional. These are:
- The four fruits and nuts: raisins, figs, almonds and hazelnuts. Each one represents the colour of the robes of the four major religious orders, the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites and Augustinians
- Dates represent Jesus’s birth in the Middle East
- White and black nougat which represent good and evil
- The pompe à l’huile (oil pump) – a sweet olive oil-based bread, usually shaped like a wheel. Pompe is only broken by hand – never cut with a knife.
- A bouche de Noël – pâtissières throughout France seemingly have a competition to make the most realistic and elaborate bouches.
- Tangerines, melon, grapes and/or other luxurious winter fruits. These signify abundance (and also show off to your friends that you can afford fresh fruit in the winter)
The rest of the plate is up to taste, local or family tradition and what you have available. Quince paste is very common. Cookies of all sorts. Petits Fours or chocolates often make an appearance. In France, you can usually find pre-assembled platters of les trieze at the Christmas market or patisserie. To recreate this at home, you’re going to have to get a little creative for some of the items. White nougat (like Italian Torrone) is fairly easy to find, but black nougat is not common here. It’s also not really nougat – in France it’s more a dense and heavy fig or date and nut paste. We used an RXBar as our handy stand in. If you want pompe you have to make it yourself (don’t worry, it’s easy and I’ve got your back with my recipe below). Yule logs are usually pretty easy to find, but they’re also fun to make and decorate. If you want to skip the hassle of making the sponge and rolling it, get a jelly roll at your local bakery and frost and decorate it yourself. Making the marzipan berries and leaves is really Zen and Yule logs our bouches are inevitably much tastier than the Royal-Icing covered gingerbread house.
There is also a traditional Provencal wine which goes with the desserts called vin cuit. This might be another area where you’re out of luck in the states. Vin cuit is a traditional sweet-wine production process from the area between Aix-en-Provence and Mount Sainte-Victoire. The name literally translates to “cooked wine” but the English doesn’t do the finished product justice. The way it’s made is that the grapes are crushed and then the must is heated without being allowed to boil until the volume of liquid is reduced by half. This concentrates the must and makes it sweeter. The cooked must is cooled and then placed in tank for a slow fermentation which stops naturally (it is not a fortified wine). The fermented wine is then aged in barrel for several months. The resulting wine is surprisingly light, but very full flavored, sweet and quite high in alcohol – around 15%. Good vin cuit is very, very good. It’s not often imported into the US, so if you see it, definitely pick some up. If you can’t find it, Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise from just up the Rhone river is perfectly acceptable and will often be found on Provencal tables today as a pair with les trieze.
Although it sounds complicated, it’s really not and most of the foods can be made in advance. Because it’s supposed to be a meatless meal, it’s a nice way to celebrate the holidays with your veg friends – and a good excuse to toast the year and the season with a group of friends you can split those seven bottles of wine with! And of course, there’s also a traditional toast at the start of the supper – « Que Dieu nous accorde la grâce de voir l’année à venir et si nous ne sommes plus, ne le sommes pas » (Let God grant us the luck to see the year to come, and if there will not be more of us, let us be no fewer).
Everyone at Bacchus wishes you and yours a Joyeux Noël et une bonne année!
The Menu (le souper)
- Scallop Rillettes
- Bouillabaisse with aioli
- Fried Calamari
- Brandade (cod casserole)
- Braised celery and chard
The Menu (les trieze)
- The four fruits and nuts: raisins, figs, almonds and hazelnuts.
- White and black nougat which represent good and evil
- Pompe à l’huile
- Bouche de Noël
- Nut thumbprint cookies
- Quince paste
La Ville Ferme Reserve Rosé Sparkling Vin de France
Clear pale salmon. Very rapid and disbursed bubbles. High acid, medium nose of strawberries and raspberries. Simple, very fizzy and almost soda-like. The palate is also medium with simple strawberry and raspberry flavors that give way to a short citrusy finish. Fun and fresh wine for popping on the patio or making sparkling cocktails with.
Domaine de Bagnol Cassis 2016
Clear, medium lemon. Medium+ nose shows lemon, lime, wet rock, grass, peach pit, saltgrass and ocean breeze. The dry palate follows the nose with high acid, flint and wet rock flavors that fade to a medium+ finish with more of the mineral, grassy and sea air flavors. Very good wine with seafood, soft cheeses or just as an aperitif.
Aix Rosé Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence 2017
Clear pale pink. Medium+ nose of strawberry, raspberry, melon and kiwi, with slight hints of cream. The finish is very long with bright berry, melon and tropical notes and lingering cream. Medium+ acidity and good balance between the acid and fruit flavors make this wine a solid choice for a barbecue or just hanging out doing the rosé all day thing.
Domaine Tempier Bandol 2017
Clear pale salmon. Very intense and complex nose of mango, very ripe peach, tangerine, grapefruit, spring flowers. Palate is dry, lush and tropical, intense mango, peach, tangerine, key lime, guava, strawberry and cream. Very complex and balanced wine. Good interplay between the lush tropical notes and crisp acidity. The intensity of the flavors and the long finish make this an outstanding wine. A rosé that’s worth aging. Can drink it now or hold 5 years, possibly longer.
Mas de Gourgonnier Les Baux de Provence 2015
Clear pale ruby, dry, medium alcohol, high acid, medium tannin. Medium+ nose of candied red apple, strawberry, vanilla, slight hint of sweet cream, smoke, cinnamon, raspberry/cherry cola. The palate follows the nose with medium+ notes of strawberry, vanilla, cherry cola. The wine is already starting to develop a bit, but still has strong fruit character with good integration of the oak and tannin. The acid is perhaps a little bit pronounced but it isn’t sharp. This is a very good wine which is drinking very nicely now but also has the potential to age for two to three years.
The saying is “what grows together, goes together” and that’s definitely true with Provencal wine and food. Other than the sparkling, which we were all a little disappointed in despite the fact that La Ville Ferme is one of our regular every day drinker brands. Their still rosé is very good (we buy it in the bag-in-box packaging as a summer sipper). The sparkling, though… it wasn’t exactly sweet, but it still felt a little like a fruity soda which made it kind of off with the flavors of the fish.
The range of wines available from Provence is great. The Cassis, which Dan brought home from a visit to the domaine 2 summers ago, was very nice. It stood up well to the range of big flavors on the table because the acid and sea breeze notes helped cut through some of the richness of the brandade and also the salty umami of the anchoïade. The Mas de Gourgonnier is an example of a Provence red. Solidly right in the middle, but great with the food if you have guests who just don’t like anything other than a dry red wine. Most people think of Provence as being exclusively rosé, but the reds and whites can also be quite good. Especially look for reds from Bandol. In a conversation with one of the winemakers we visited there, who was anxious to have us try his reds, vignerons there love the rosé because it moves out quickly and gives them some cashflow to vinify and age the reds. Bandol is a bit of an exception for powerful reds in Provence. Most tend to be more like the Mas de Gourgonnier, with a light to medium body and a fair amount of red fruit. If you find a red Bandol, grab it and sit on it for a few years. Most other Provencal reds are meant to be drunk young like the rosés.
The all-around winner of the night was the Tempier rosé. It’s not true that rosé can’t age – most aren’t made for it, but the ones that are certainly can. A good quality example develops some really neat tertiary characteristics if you hold it for a few years. This is clearly an example of a wine that can hold up to that. We’ve stashed a few bottles in the back of the cellar and are planning on tracking its development over time. We had quite a debate about how long this wine could go over dinner. Consensus was five years. I’m actually holding out for longer. It’s got a lot of structure and complexity that I can see deepening over time. It was remarkable with everything on the table. It stood up to the garlic and anchovies, brought out really nice qualities in the bouillabaisse and enhanced the creaminess of the brandade.
Pompe à l’huile
This is very similar to a focaccia, except sweet and with eggs. It’s very simple to make and very tasty. Leftovers, if you have any, make excellent French toast or bread pudding
5 cups flour, plus extra
1 cup water, plus extra
1⁄3 cup plus 1 tbsp. sugar
1 whole egg plus one egg yolk
2 tbs. honey
1 package active dry yeast
3⁄4 cup plus 1 tbsp. fruity extra-virgin olive oil (you taste the oil, use a good quality, fresh, fruity olive oil or it will not taste good)
2 tbs Orange Flower water (if you can’t find it, you can substitute Grand Marnier or Cointreau)
2 tsp. Salt
- Make your starter by combining 1 ½ cups flour, 1 cup water, sugar, honey and yeast in the bowl of your stand mixer (or another large bowl). Set aside for about 30 minutes to an hour until it’s frothy.
- Add the remainder of the flour, the oil, egg, the orange flower water and the salt and mix until you have a soft dough. In my Kitchenaid, that’s about 3 minutes on medium. You want the dough to be pulling from the side of the bowl, not so sticky that you can’t work with it but not so firm that you have a ball like a bread dough. Add extra water or flour as needed to get the texture correct. Cover the dough and let rise until doubled, usually around 2 hours.
- Place the dough on a parchment covered baking sheet and flatten and pull out until you have a rough circle. Take a sharp kitchen knife and cut five slits in the dough from the center towards the edges to make the bread look like a wheel. Gently pull apart the slits so that they don’t close during rising and baking.
- Cover and let rise while the oven pre-heats to 400 degrees
- Bake until the bread is brown and has puffed up, around 15 minutes
- Remove the bread from the oven and place on a rack to cool.
- Serve as the centerpiece to your Thirteen Desserts. Remember to break the bread, not cut it! Tradition dictates that if you cut the bread with a knife, you risk severing your friendship with those at the table over the course of the next year.
I had to concoct this recipe myself because there isn’t a good one on the internet and nobody in the US makes scallop rillettes. They can be found in fancy food stores in jars, and those are good, but not what I was looking for – there’s a great seafood stall in the market in Avignon that sells house-made scallop rillettes and this is my best effort at recreating their recipe. This method also works well with other types of shellfish like shrimp or crab. If you want to try it with a fattier fish like salmon have an extra lemon on hand and start with less of the aioli and maybe a bit more crème fraiche and adjust acid/fat to your liking). Be light handed with the aioli or you’ll get something that is more like a smooth seafood salad than a rillette.
½ pound scallops. You can use sea or bay. If you use sea, cut them in halves or quarters after they’ve cooked.
1 bay leaf
1 shallot, chopped
3 green onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 lemon, zested and juiced
2 tbs. fresh parsley
½ c fresh, zingy white wine (Muscadet is preferred. Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis or similar will work too. Don’t use anything like an oaked Chardonnay, you want high acid and fresh citrus flavors)
2 tbsp butter
2 tsp chives
1 tbsp crème fraiche or sour cream
1-2 tbsp aioli (Mayonnaise will work in a pinch, but it’s thicker than aioli so start with less)
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh bread, toasts or crackers to serve
Breadcrumbs (if needed to bind)
- Put the scallops, wine, bay leaf and half the lemon juice and the lemon zest in a pan over low heat until scallops poach, around 7 minutes
- While the scallops poach, melt the butter in a frying pan over low-medium heat and add the shallot, green onions and garlic to the pan to soften and carmelize. Do not brown them too much or they will be crunchy.
- Remove the scallops from the saucepan to cool. Discard bay leaf but reserve liquid.
- When the onions, garlic and shallot have finished softening, turn up the heat and deglaze the pan with some of the poaching liquid.
- Put the ¾ of the scallops, all the onions, garlic and shallot along with what remains of the deglazing liquor, the parsley and a few chives into a bowl or pot that can safely accommodate a hand blender and mix until it’s smooth. You can use a regular blender if you don’t have a hand blender, but be very careful not to liquefy the scallops. You want a paste, not a puree.
- Roughly chop the rest of the scallops so that they are in bite-sized chunks. Snip some chives and chop some extra fresh parsley to taste. Mix the scallops, greens, crème fraiche, 1 tablespoon of aioli and the salt and pepper into the scallop paste.
- Adjust the texture with the remaining aioli and/or the breadcrumbs. You want a spreadable paste that’s thick but also soft like a mousse.
- Refrigerate to set up slightly and chill thoroughly before serving, at least one hour.
Brandade de Morue
Salt cod is a popular food this time of year, and just about every Mediterranean culture has a recipe that features it. I love it Provencal style, cod croquettas from a street vendor in Lisbon is one of the foods I had while travelling that I dream about to this day (and run out and find just about as soon as much luggage hits the floor of my apartment when I’m back in that city), insalata di baccalà… I can’t think of a cod dish I don’t love. But I think brandade is my favorite. It’s the ultimate comfort food casserole and sharing it on a terrace overlooking the Med outside Nice with a bottle of local rosé and a warm baguette is one of my favorite memories. It’s a great winter recipe and really easy to make if you remember to rehydrate and desalt the cod at least a day in advance. Cook this on a rainy or snowy night, toss a green salad with simple French-style thyme dressing and open a bottle of rosé and the winter blues will disappear.
1 box salt cod
Milk or water to cover, enough for several changes of liquid
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
1 or 2 medium Russet potatoes*
5 cloves garlic (or more), plus 2 cloves chopped
¾ cup extra virgin oil
½ cup heavy cream or half and half
Zest of half a lemon
2-3 tbsp parsley, chopped
*Dan only uses 1 potato because we like the flavor of the cod. If you want a more mild cod flavor, you can use two potatoes, just double the oil and cream.
- 24 hours in advance: Rinse cod well under running water. Trust me, if you think it’s rinsed, rinse it a little more. Put in a large freezer bag and cover with water or milk. Milk is traditional, but you change the liquid several times, so Dan just uses water. You can start with water and then do the last soak in milk if you prefer. Change the liquid every couple of hours. This is both softening the cod and also drawing more salt out. There is a lot of salt. Change the water at least 3 times.
- Any point between then and now, bake or boil the potatoes until they’re soft. Cool and run through a potato ricer on the medium screen. You can peel them if you want. We prefer the flavor and texture of the skins, so Dan just leaves them on. If you’re doing this in advance, hold the cooked potatoes whole and rice them before proceeding with the recipe.
- Drain the cod and place in a saucepan with the thyme, whole garlic and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand in the hot liquid for 30 minutes.
- Drain the cod, keep the garlic but discard the bay leaves and thyme sprigs. remove to a bowl and allow to cool until you can handle it. Once you can, flake the cod, sorting through to pick out any bones or particularly tough pieces of skin or membrane (the silvery stuff)
- Put the flaked cod, cooked garlic cloves and chopped fresh garlic into a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, start the mixer on medium high and add the olive oil in a thin stream until it’s fully emulsified. Do the same with the cream or half and half.
- Add the potato and mix until the potatoes are just fully blended with the fish. Don’t overbeat or the potatoes will get gluey.
- Season it with pepper, lemon zest and chopped parsley. Taste for salt. Add more only if needed.
- Transfer to a gratin dish and bake for 10 minutes in a 350 degree oven to heat through. Broil 3 minutes on high to brown and crisp the top. Serve hot. Alternatively, you can also serve the dish without heating it at all, like a rillette or seafood spread.
Like bagna cauda, only thicker and more anchovy-flavored.
10 salt-packed anchovies, rinsed, filleted and chopped. If you can’t get them salted, use a good quality imported brand of jarred anchovies packed in olive oil. Do not use canned anchovies in this dish.
6 or 7 garlic cloves, chopped
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp red wine vinegar
2 tbsp butter, cold
Put all ingredients except butter in a small pan over very, very, very low heat. Heat until you can just smell the garlic. Remove from heat and cool. Put the oil in a food processor and blend with the butter until thick. Can be served cold as a spread or, my favorite, warmed as a dip for bread or vegitables. If you like it warm, you can omit the butter and skip the food processor step.